AND we thought it was enough to just remember the dead.
Sometimes they demand more — you are welcome to disagree, by all means — but they do. From time to time, here and there. In unexpected ways, singularly plural. One of the few luxuries they permit themselves from the world of the living.
All right, let’s go back two hundred years; two dates to be exact. The first, February 23, 1821. That’s the day John Keats moved on; bullied by disease, hastened towards death by impatient time. Less than two months later, April 9, 1821, enter Charles Baudelaire, on the other side of the English Channel.
Big deal. People die and people are born; what’s new?
True, yet consider this. Keats, one of romanticism’s greatest, died early — just 25 he was — but left behind his six great odes. And, of course, Endymion. Bright Star. And The Eve of St. Agnes. And La Belle Dame sans Merci.
By the time he too bowed out, only 46, after a life lived to its detritus, Baudelaire had left behind his Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). And page after page of disturbingly incandescent lines.
This year marks the bicentennial of both — a death and a birth — so a tribute is in order. One of the unwritten contracts of existence is that the onus of remembrance will always be on the living. But how do you go about such homage? In the end, the heart’s response settled the matter. The world might be more random than we think but Keats’s exit and Baudelaire’s development as a poet straddled a fascinating changeover.
With Keats, romanticism was an excursion into a higher world that was eternal, even magical — “She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint” (Eve of St. Agnes). Baudelaire’s was more a sigh, no less romantic but of despair, at a new realism of emerging decadence. A world that had thrust before his “eyes full of bewilderment… all the bloody instruments of Destruction!” That was from his eponymous poem, Destruction. Baudelaire mirrored, and lived through, that transition; from the effervescence of romanticism to the terse, broken rhythm of modernism. Got the drift?
An intimation of what lay in store for the reader had come early, in Bénédiction, the first poem in Spleen et idéal (Spleen and the Ideal), the first of the six sections of Baudelaire’s poetic masterpiece, where the poet writes about his mother’s fury at the “night of ephemeral joy” when her “belly conceived this… expiation!”
Yet there’s a hint of redemption, too, when an “unseen angel” appears as protector of the unwanted infant and the “outcast child is enrapt by the sun”. It is a dazzlingly visual imagery, impossibly romantic, but refracted in the schisms of approaching modernity. No wonder the Symbolists who came later would embrace Baudelaire as their own.
It is easy to get carried away. So for the sake of convenience, this write-up would limit itself to a few poems that reflect the continuity in the transition. Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, for instance, one of the greatest poems ever written, and Baudelaire’s Le Cygne (The Swan), one of his most famous.
One centres on an invisible songbird; the other a very visible bird that has enchanted poets down the ages. Even the king of gods, if myths are not merely mythical, had been tempted into taking its shape to indulge his illegitimate fancies. For Baudelaire, though, the swan is a swansong for a changing world, but more of that later.
Both the poems touch upon the existential themes of alienation and the heavy weight of personal loss, either through death or physical exile. In Nightingale (written in 1819), the bird that has nested unseen in Keats’s garden lifts the despondent poet into a comfort zone of imaginative flight, temporarily away from a world of grief and illness that he wants to forget. Remember, Keats had lost his brother Tom the previous year to tuberculosis, the disease that would claim him too.
“Away! away! for I will fly to thee,” the poet writes, as he longs to join existence with the “immortal Bird” that has sung to emperors of old and “Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.”
The poet’s world, in contrast, is one where “youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”; only the world of the nightingale holds a promise of solace, though it’s a tenuous oblivion. In the end, it is a futile wish, because the music fades.
The poem ends with the words “Fled is that music: — Do I wake or sleep?” It is a crushing realisation but, as long as the music held, the world was a symphony.
In Le Cygne, one of the poems in the section Tableaux Parisiens (Parisian Scenes), the memory of a swan that had escaped from its cage becomes a symbol of loss and exile as it stands lonely near the Louvre, trailing “white plumage” on the stony street, bathing in the dust of a city being reshaped into a modern metropolis, and hoping for the “roll” of thunder, as it remembers its “fair native lake”.
“I see that hapless bird…,” Baudelaire writes, as he captures the swan’s long-necked look at the sky, its “crazy motions/ Ridiculous, sublime, like a man in exile”.
“Toward the ironic, cruelly blue sky”, the swan looks, stretches its “avid head” upon its “quivering neck”, as if it were “reproaching God!”
Keats had gone excruciatingly young but the poetic soul, aborted early, had found a new vehicle; a new form of expression, yet hung on to its essence — the truth of the imagination, perhaps more disconcerting than luminous, but indisputably lyrical.
Baudelaire also brings in several other characters into the poem, among them Hector’s widow Andromache, a trophy from the Trojan war at the mercy of other men; and a wasted “negress”, a slave uprooted from the “coco-palms of splendid Africa”, possibly a reference to Jeanne Duval, a woman of mixed race and one of the several in the poet’s life. All three — the swan, Andromache and the “negress” — symbolise a situation of exile and alienation from a world irretrievably lost.
Like the swan and the others, Baudelaire too feels like an alien in the changing city: “Paris changes… New palaces, scaffolding, blocks of stone,/Old quarters, all become for me an allegory,/And my dear memories are heavier than rocks.”
This was a time Emperor Napoléon III had commissioned the reconstruction of Paris, a public works drive that involved the demolition of medieval neighbourhoods so that wide avenues, parks and squares could be built. The reconstruction also cleared the way for better surveillance and easier movement of troops in a city where seven armed uprisings and revolts had broken out between 1830 and 1848.
For Baudelaire, though, the fatal blow had been struck. “Old Paris is no more”, he would write in the poem, the romance of asymmetry bulldozed by the heavy horsepower of modernity.
Yet the city wasn’t the only thing that was changing. Poetry too was in progression. In imagery. In expression. And in content.
Harken back a little, nearabout half a century or so to 1819, to La Belle Dame sans Merci, Keats’s haunting ballad on deceptive, illusory love, and the ultimately fatal allure of seduction. “I saw pale kings, and princes too,/ Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;/Who cried — ‘La belle Dame sans merci/ Hath thee in thrall!’”
Here was a tale told in a way reminiscent of chivalry, the medieval idea of courtly romance, but with an inversion.
Now return to Baudelaire again and thumb through the pages till you come upon the section Fleurs du Mal and the poem Les Deux Bonnes Soeurs (The Two Good Sisters) — “Debauchery and Death” — whose “ever-virgin loins, draped with tattered clothes and/Burdened with constant work, have never given birth”.
“I’ve also sought forgetfulness in lust,” he would write in the succeeding poem, La Fontaine de Sang (The Fountain of Blood), “But love’s a bed of needles, and they thrust/To give more drink to each rapacious whore.”
Death and Debauch then reappear in Allégorie (Allegory), the next poem, but are powerless to harm the “virgin” and “sterile” prostitute whose “granite skin” blunts the “scraping” claws of lust.
The idiom of articulating sterile love had altered inexorably — from a lady without mercy to a woman whose “essential… beautiful body is a sublime gift”.
If Keats’s La Belle draws the reader into a hellish theatre of loveless horror, Baudelaire’s poems on the darker side of love go beyond. They not only hold out the promise of redemption, they also question the traditional notions of feminine beauty and liberate a woman from the cultural construct of “The Second Sex”. Mind you, Baudelaire was writing long before feminism as a movement had really got under way.
When the dead aren’t memory yet, they foreshadow us.
Ananda Kamal Sen